Drought Threatens Communities Where Cows Are Currency

Each day, Garbicha and his oldest son walk with their cows for hours to find food and water. Photo by Lys Arango for Action Against Hunger.

As Ethiopia suffers its second severe drought in the last three years, 3.5 million of the country’s children suffer from life-threatening malnutrition. Action Against Hunger is working with herding families to help them prepare for the worst, but more help is urgently needed.

In Tesso Qelo, wealth is measured in cows: people make business transactions in cows, a marriage dowry is paid in cows, and problems are fixed with cows. When the cows are healthy, so, too, are communities; but if the cows die, life becomes a misery.

In 2016, Garbicha’s family lost most of their cows and other livestock to the area’s worst drought in 50 years. The animals’ main food source – grass – dried up, and water was scarce. Garbicha tried to sell the few cows left standing at the market, but, as he recalls, “No one was interested in skinny cows.”

The family’s crisis led to hunger, which took its cruellest form – severe acute malnutrition – in three of his five children. They were admitted to Action Against Hunger’s nutrition program and, after weeks of treatment, managed to recover.

The last drought taught this small herding community in southern Ethiopia about the realities of climate change and the dire consequences that extreme and unpredictable weather fluctuations can have on their livelihoods. Ever since, they’ve been preparing to deal with another drought and building resilience to climate change in a variety of ways.

Garbicha’s wife, Gordo, joined the community’s savings group for women, supported by Action Against Hunger.

“We were given goats. We save the money we get from selling goat milk and have opened a credit system,” she says. Each woman spends the extra income however she chooses: extra food, personal needs, or medicine. Some of the women have started new businesses: Gordo sells spices.

A meeting of the local savings group, supported by Action Against Hunger. Photo by Lys Arango for Action Against Hunger.

“Before, we depended completely on our husbands,” explains Gordo. “Now, we can make use of this money for emergencies or even to help other women who are going through difficult times. We have achieved some economic independence.”

At the local health center, malnutrition is treated daily – our teams also work with expectant and new mothers to provide care and education to prevent future cases. To improve hygiene and prevent disease outbreaks, our staff have built latrines and trained local community members on how to stay healthy.

Action Against Hunger also supports a “cash for work” system within the village to help support livelihoods. The entire community earns some additional income to fence off land and clear it of shrubs, dry trees, and weeds, which allows the grass to grow. The plants are stored and used during times of scarcity.

Edao Worku, Community Development Agent for Action Against Hunger in Tesso Qelo, explains how this activity helps people fight hunger: “When the rains are erratic and the pastures are dry, they can continue feeding their cows with stocks of grass. But this does not solve all problems, the need for water continues to grow.”

Drought threatens this community yet again – most of the water points are empty. Right now, there are just two left, which are three hours away on foot. Photo by Lys Arango for Action Against Hunger.

In 2019, the drought is threatening this community yet again – most of the water points are empty. Right now, there are just two left, which are three hours away on foot. Gordo walks there with her jerrycan every morning to try to collect water for her household. Garbicha and his eldest son do the same search with their cattle: each day, they herd the family’s cows in a quest for water that takes hours.

“This situation is very serious. Although we have grass now, if there is no water, our cattle will also die,” says Garbicha, anguished.

Gordo replies with a question that hangs heavy in the air: “And if they die, what will we live on?”


Action Against Hunger is working with families across East Africa to help them survive the drought. We are treating malnourished children, improving access to clean water and safe sanitation, supporting livelihoods and food security, and more.